How to Understand Visions
The last half of Daniel can feel confusing. While the first half of the book narrated specific examples of God’s power to rescue Daniel from arrogant kings in Babylon’s history. The second half records Daniel’s dreams and visions. And like our dreams and visions, they are alarming, exaggerated, and confusing.
It’s helpful then to think about the last half of Daniel as if human events are being blown up to cosmic proportions. Daniel’s visions place lowly exiled Israel in the middle of this great cosmic battle. These visions dignify Israel’s suffering and give them confidence that God will conquer.
Their suffering isn’t insignificant. In fact, it reverberates through the heavens. The arrogance they see in Babylon’s kings really is that bad. In fact, it’s demonically monstrous. God really has taken notice and dispatched the armies of heaven. Despite what it looks like, he is still in control.
So the questions you’re meant to ask after reading half a book of stories about God rescuing Daniel in exile and then a grand vision of the Ancient of Days conquering all kings is - When and How? When will God win? How will God do it? Chapters 8-12 are written to answer those questions.
The Ram and The Goat
The first vision describes the rise and fall of the Median, the Persian, and the Greek empires. Once Greece falls a number of other lesser kings will rise giving way to a “big horn” (a different symbol for the great beast of Daniel 7). Daniel is confused (as you might be) but is promised these princes will be “broken by no human hand” (Daniel 8:25).
The Angelic Interpreter
The second vision comes after Daniel spends a prolonged period of time in prayer, fasting and reading the biblical book of Jeremiah. Jeremiah 25 promised that Israel’s sins would lead to a 70-year captivity in Babylon. Daniel realized that time had come and repents for Israel’s pride and idolatry. In response, an angel named Gabriel explains that Israel’s sins are so great that the 70 years will be extended to 70 “weeks” or 70 “sevens” to “put an end to sin” (Daniel 8:24). Only then will the “decreed end” of Israel’s exile be over (Daniel 8:27).
The Hovering Spiritual Being(s)
The final visions describe a terrifying being who details another “great conflict” (10:1). First a spiritual conflict with the “Prince of Persia” and then an unnamed geopolitical conflict between “kings of the north” and “kings of the south.” The spiritual conflict is not separate from the political one. Throughout Daniel’s visions, demonic beasts are symbols for earthly kings. The point is that all powers “shall come to an end, with none to help them” (11:25). And the point of the very detailed account of the northern and southern kingdoms is to show that no movement of any king is in God’s blindspot. God knows and triumphs over them all. Even the dead do not escape God’s power and control. In fact, God will raise the dead so that they, like the nations and like Israel, will either be humiliated or rescued (Daniel 12:2).
Where is Jesus?
The temptation when we read Daniel is to demand from it’s pages a history - a specific timeline leading to the end. But Daniel is less interested in when and how history will unfold, than in who you trust during that history.
You can spend your energy trying to reconcile Daniel’s 70 weeks, the 1335 days, the 1290 days, the “time times and half a times,” and what kingdoms in which order are represented in the statute, the four beasts, the ram, the goat, the northern and southern kings. But Daniel would rather you spend your energy hoping in the God who reconciles history and rescues his people.
The point of the prophecy isn’t that you know history before it happens, the point is to trust the God who knows history before it happens. The point isn’t to know a when, but a who. In chapter 9 Daniel is told that Israel’s exile will continue for seventy “weeks” or “sevens” to “atone for iniquity” and “bring in everlasting righteousness.” There is only one other time “seventy sevens” is mentioned in Scripture, and it’s by Jesus in Matthew 18.
Peter, anxious to know just how patient he needs to be with his sinful neighbors, is told to forgive them “seventy times seven” times. Like in Daniel, it’s not an exact number but a complete one. Peter is supposed to forgive endlessly because he will be forgiven perfectly.
Jesus, like Israel, will be exiled for the sins of the people and experience judgment “seventy times seven” times over. But once his “seventy weeks” are complete, our transgressions are finished, our sin is ended, our iniquities atoned, everlasting righteousness is given to us, as we’re anointed as God’s new temple, a most holy place (Daniel 9:24). Offering endless forgiveness and patience to others, just as God did for us.
See For Yourself.
May the Holy Spirit open your eyes to see the God who knows all of history, and Jesus as the one who has ended our exile and forgiven us seventy times seven times.